St. Ambrose University has cleared a major hurdle to admit its first group of students in its soon-to-be offered master of physician assistant degree program.

The university announced late last month that the program was granted accreditation-provisional status by the Accreditation Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.

The status gives the university the green light to begin teaching the program and allows the university to enroll up to 30 students for the first cohort. A cohort is a group of students who take certain classes together throughout the duration of a program.

Full accreditation cannot be granted until a program has graduated a cohort, spokeswoman Jane Kettering said.

The first 30-student class will begin June 16 and is expected to graduate in December 2016.

The program will be the first physician assistant program in the Quad-Cities and western Illinois region and one of only 187 such programs nationwide, according to a university news release.

According to the United States Department of Labor, employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 38 percent from 2012-2022, much faster than the average of all occupations.

The department said that may be due to an increased demand for healthcare services from the growing aging population and widespread chronic disease, combined with a shortage of physicians.

Typical physician assistant duties include taking medical histories, completing examinations, ordering diagnostic tests and providing medical care and prescribing medication. They also could assist in surgeries or specialize in one of a variety of practice areas in conjunction with their supervising physician.

St. Ambrose announced plans to launch the program in 2012. The university received more than 300 applicants for the program's first cohort of students.

“The large pool of well-qualified applicants, even before we reached accreditation status, is a testament to St. Ambrose’s reputation and allowed us to be very selective in our offers,” said MPAS program director Clare Kennedy in a news release.

At full capacity, the program will simultaneously enroll three cohorts of 30 students each.

Applicants for the 29-month program must have earned an undergraduate degree, complete specific prerequisite courses and earned at least 500 hours of health care experience with direct patient contact.

Students accepted into the program will spend the first 14 months in the classroom and laboratory, followed by 15 months of clinical rotations.

Applications for the next cohort will be accepted starting April 17. Visit www.sau.edu/mpas for more information.